Capital, Science, Technology: The Development of Productive Forces in Contemporary Capitalism - Raul Delgado Wise and Mateo Crossa Niel

30 March 2021


Understanding the way in which contemporary capitalism—which Samir Amin insightfully characterized as the era of generalized monopolies—organizes productive forces is crucial to grasping both the forms of domination defining imperialism today and the profound metamorphoses that monopoly capital has undergone during the last three decades.

The concept of general intellect, put forward by Karl Marx, is a useful starting point for the exploration of the organization of productive forces. Let us take the example of one of the most “advanced” innovation systems today: Silicon Valley’s Imperial System. Our analysis seeks not only to reveal the profound contradictions of capitalist modernity, but also to highlight the significant transmutation that today’s monopoly capital is undergoing. Far from acting as a driving force for the development of social productive forces, it has become a parasitic entity with an essentially rentier and speculative function. Underlying this is an institutional framework that favors the private appropriation and the concentration of the products of general intellect.

Capital, General Intellect, and the Development of Productive Forces

Capitalism is characterized by the separation of the direct producers from their means of production and subsistence. This separation broke violently into the embryonic phase of capitalist development with the process that Marx referred to as “so-called primitive accumulation” (more correctly translated as “so-called primary accumulation”). It is not just a foundational process, external or alien to the dynamics of capitalism, but one that reproduces itself over time and is accentuated through new and increasingly sophisticated mechanisms with the advent of neoliberal policies, so much so that David Harvey proposed the category “accumulation by dispossession” in his book The New Imperialism to refer to this incessant phenomenon.

Importantly, the primal separation of the direct producer that Marx describes in chapters 14 and 15 of the first volume of Capital is only formal. In the early stages of industrial capitalism, even if the direct producers did not own the means of production—which they considered foreign property and an external force of domination—they maintained some control over their working tools in the production process. Thus, the separation was not wholly complete until the appearance of large-scale industry in the second half of the twentieth century, which radically changed the situation. The production of machines by machines—that is, the use of an integrated machinery system, as a totality of mechanical processes distributed in different phases moved by a common motor—gave way to a complete separation between workers and their tools. This brought the optimal conditions for a second and deeper dispossession, relegating labor to a subordinated role in the production process and converting the worker into an appendage of a machine. It is worth mentioning, however, that the use of this metaphor by Marx does not mean that the direct producer is unable to eventually contribute to the attainment of an improvement or a technological innovation. There are several historical examples that account for this possibility.

Nevertheless, in terms of the theory of value, there is a general movement toward the predominance of dead labor, objectified in the machine, over living labor—in other words, the prevalence of relative surplus value in the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. The emergence of machinery and large-scale industry meant that capital managed to create its own technical mode of production as the foundation of what Marx conceives in the unpublished sixth chapter of Capital, volume 1, as the real subsumption of labor under capital; in other words, the “specific capitalist mode of production.” As Marx wrote, “the historical significance of capitalist production first emerges here in striking fashion (and specifically), precisely through the transformation of the direct production process itself, and the development of the social productive powers of labour.”

This process originated during the second half of the First Industrial Revolution and deepened during the Second Industrial Revolution (1870–1914), where science and technology appear as engines of production, forcing development as the so-called first globalization was occurring. Since then, the growth of capital has been directly associated with the development of production forces and the consequent expansion of surplus value, mainly in the form of relative surplus value. At the same time, this is marked by the continuous increase in the organic composition of capital (the relation between capital invested in the means of production and that invested in the labor force), where “the scale of production is not determined according to given needs but rather the reverse: the number of products is determined by the constantly increasing scale of production, which is prescribed by the mode of production itself.” This inherent contradiction in the specifically capitalist mode of production is related, in turn, to (1) the trend of concentration and centralization of capital that accompanies accumulation dynamics and (2) the concomitant tendency toward absolute impoverishment of the working class, in what Marx conceives as the general law of capitalist accumulation:

The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and, therefore, also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its labor, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital also develop the labor power at its disposal. The relative mass of the industrial reserve army increases, therefore, with the potential energy of wealth. But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labor army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse proportion to its torment of labor. Finally, the greater the growth of the misery within the working class and the industrial reserve army, the greater the official pauperism.

The trend toward the complete separation of the worker from the means of production is consolidated into what Victor Figueroa described as follows:

The factory offers us the image of a production center that does not demand workers’ awareness or knowledge of the production process.… As if the factory, being itself the result of the productive application of knowledge, demanded for the knowledge to be developed outside and, therefore, independently to the workers it houses, where immediate labor is presumably a mere executor of the progress forged separately by science.

In Labor and Monopoly Capital, Harry Braverman described this fissure as an essential part of the scientific and technological revolution that detached the subjective and objective content of the labor process.

The unity of thought and action, conception and execution, hand and mind, which capitalism threatened from its beginning, is now attacked by a systemic dissolution employing all the resources of science and various engineering disciplines based upon it. The subjective factor of the labor process is removed to a place among its inanimate objective factors. To the materials and instruments of production are added a “labor force,” another “factor of production,” and the process is henceforth carried on by management as the sole subjective element.… This displacement of labor as the subjective element of the process, and its subordination as an objective element in a productive process now conducted by management, is an ideal realized by capital.

In the face of these circumstances, derived from the technical and social division of labor inherent to the specifically capitalist mode of production, it is worth asking ourselves: In what way does capital, beyond the immediate work that is deployed in the factory, organize the development of the productive forces? What kinds of workers, universities, and research centers participate in this process? What is the role of the state and other institutions? What role do accumulated social knowledge, basic and applied science play? What types of intangible and tangible products are generated? What are the mechanisms and mediations involved in the transformation of scientific and technological work to productive forces? What kind of profit enters the scene and how does it affect the dynamics of social surplus value distribution, concentration, and centralization of capital?

Although Marx does not explicitly address this issue in Capital except in marginal footnotes, in the Grundrisse’s “Fragment on Machines,” he coined the category of general intellect and made some considerations, in the form of notes, that provide important clues to help us understand the subject.

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and have been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real-life process.

From this, we can infer that fixed capital, or constant capital, is condensed into past material and immaterial labor (dead labor). Consequently, accumulated social knowledge is objectified in the means of production and becomes an immediate force of production. In other words, general intellect is a collective and social intelligence created by accumulated knowledge and techniques. This radical transformation of the workforce and the incorporation of science, communication and language within the productive forces has redefined the entire phenomenology of labor and the entire global horizon of production. General intellect means that the general form of human intelligence becomes a productive force in the sphere of global social labor and capitalist valorization. The power of science and technology are put to work.… With the concept of general intellect, Marx refers to science and consciousness in general, that is, the knowledge on which social productivity depends.

With the advent of the capitalist mode of production, a new and particularly significant division was created between what could be called immediate labor and scientific-technological labor. While the former unfolds in the factory, the latter is carried out separately and under different, although complementary, forms of organization, with both converging in the critical function for capitalist development: the increase of surplus value. If immediate labor is actually subsumed by capital, scientific and technological labor can only be, at best, formally subsumed, becoming what Figueroa calls a workshop of technological progress to distinguish it from the way immediate labor in the factory is organized. However, the way general intellect is structured, in its quest to accelerate the development of productive forces, acquires increasingly sophisticated and complex modalities, as in the paradigmatic case of the Silicon Valley Imperial Innovation System.

The growing importance of immaterial work in the production process does not imply a “crisis” of the law of value, as suggested by Antonio Negri. Rather, it implies that an increasing proportion of the social surplus value and the social surplus fund captured by capital and the state is redistributed toward activities aimed at promoting the development of productive forces. In other words, immediate labor and scientific-technological labor interweave dialectically to broaden the scope of capital valorization through the deepening of exploitation. In this sense, under the prism of the theory of value, the general intellect contributes to increasing the organic composition of capital with a powerful leitmotif: the appropriation of extraordinary profits, that is, profits greater than the average profit, commonly conceived as technological rents. In this aspect, the Ecuadorian-Mexican philosopher Bolívar Echeverría specifies that there are two poles of monopoly property to which the group of capitalist owners must acknowledge rights in the process of determining the average profit. Based on the most productive resources and provisions of nature, land ownership defends its traditional right to convert the global fund of extraordinary profit into payment for that domain, in other words, into ground rent. The only property that is capable of challenging this right throughout modern history and has indefinitely imposed its own, is the more or less lasting domain over a technical innovation of means of production. This property forces the conversion of an increasing part of extraordinary profit into a payment for its dominion, in other words, into a “technological rent.”

It is worth noting that Echeverría brackets the notion of technological rent, associating it with ground rent—or surplus associated with the ownership of a monopolizable good that does not derive from incorporated labor during the production process. Under the new forms of general intellect organization, monopoly capital appropriates profit through the acquisition of patents, without implying investments in the promotion and development of the productive forces, behaving in this sense as a rentier agent.

Unlike immediate labor, the subordination of scientific and technological labor to capital is extremely complex, especially because the value that the scientific and technological labor force incorporates into the production process is not immediately objectified; it is the product and result of social knowledge expressed in the market once new commodities, new production processes, and new ways of organizing and increasing labor productivity are concretized. Pablo Míguez refers to this phenomenon not as “a simple subordination to capital, but an independent relation to labor time imposed by capital, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish working time from production time or leisure time.”

From the theory of value perspective, the process of valorization of scientific and technological labor is materialized in the production and circulation sphere, but in the distribution sphere of valorized capital, that social surplus value, mediated by intellectual property, is issued in the form of a rent. In this sense, it is important to emphasize the fundamental role held by states in the distribution of social surplus to promote basic and applied science, supporting public and private universities, as well as research centers. The state also contributes to creating institutions and policies that allow for the private appropriation of rent to come out of the general intellect. These institutions become crucial to the dynamics of accumulation and uneven development characterizing contemporary capitalism and imperialism.

The transformation of the general intellect into an immediate productive force, materialized in new commodities and new ways of organizing the labor process, requires the mediation of patents and a patenting system. In the capitalist mode of production, the creation of intellectual property through patents or patenting systems acquires a strategic importance in relation to the control and orientation of productive forces. This becomes a key element both for the private appropriation of products that emanate from the general intellect, and for the organization of innovation systems. In this sense, national and international patent legislations constitute a mechanism that enables the privatization and commodification of common goods, hindering potentially beneficial innovations for society.

For example, The legal mechanisms for the private appropriation of scientific-technological labor, with the patent as a nodal part in the restructuring of innovation systems, becomes a basic piece for the withholding of extraordinary profits made possible through global corporate regulation in tune with the imperial State policies.… Hence, international law functions as a core piece of private control of scientific-technological labor through a series of intellectual property and international trade regulatory agreements.

Following this idea, Míguez argues that, in the context of contemporary capitalism, “intellectual property is reinforced as it is the only mechanism that allows for the private appropriation of increasingly social knowledge in its incessant quest to valorize capital.”

The development of the productive forces in contemporary capitalism—and the course followed by the general intellect—cannot be understood separately from the contemporary domination of monopoly capital. This hegemonic fraction of capital—ubiquitous in contemporary capitalism—finds its raison d’être in the appropriation of extraordinary profits and technological rents through monopoly prices, among other processes. According to Marx, monopoly appropriation of profit through prices refers to prices that rise above the cost of production and the average profit together, enabling monopoly capital to appropriate a relatively greater portion of social surplus value than the one that would correspond to conditions of free competition.

Another fundamental feature of monopoly capital, as a sine qua non condition for obtaining profits, is its need to maintain lasting advantages over other possible participants in a particular branch or branches where it operates. Such advantages can be natural or artificial, depending on the combination of forms of surplus profit, which, in turn, configure particular monopolistic practices. One of these forms is related to capitalism’s revolutionary development of productive forces, as envisioned by Marx: technological change. In this regard, Joseph A. Schumpeter—far from intending to identify his vision of technological change with that proposed by Marx in Capital—sets forth the existence of a positive relationship between innovation and monopoly power, arguing that competition through innovation or “creative destruction” is the most effective means of acquiring advantages over potential competitors. Furthermore, Schumpeter argues that innovation is both a means of achieving monopoly profit and a method of maintaining it.

It should be noted, however, that in the Marxist conception, there is no mechanical or direct identification of technological change with a positive vision of progress. On the contrary, being governed by the law of value and the necessity of capital to broaden accumulation, technological change does not escape the contradictions of capitalist modernity, which, as Echeverría emphasizes, “leads itself, structurally, by the way in which the process of reproduction of social wealth is organized…to the destruction of the social subject and the destruction of nature where this social subject affirms itself.”

The appropriation of extraordinary monopoly profits produced by means of intellectual property is accompanied in contemporary capitalism by a profound restructuring of this hegemonic fraction of capital, through a process of hyper-monopolization, where three additional forms of profit appropriation stand out:

  1. The formation of monopoly capital global networks, commonly known as global value chains, through the geographic expansion of corporate power by transferring parts of production, commercial, and financial service to peripheral countries in search of cheap labor. Basically, it is a new nomadism in the global production system based on the enormous wage differentials that persist between the Global North and the Global South (the global labor arbitrage). This restructuring strategy has deeply modified the global geography of production to the degree that just over 70 percent of industrial employment is currently located in peripheral or emerging economies.
  2. The predominance of financial capital over other factions of capital. In the absence of profitable investments in the productive sphere due to the over-accumulation crisis triggered in the late 1970s, capital began moving toward financial speculation, creating strong distortions in the sphere of social surplus value distribution through the financialization of the capitalist class, which has led to an explosion of fictitious capital—financial assets without a counterpart in material production.
  3. The proliferation of extractivism by monopolizing and controlling land and subsoil by monopoly capital. In addition to accentuating the dynamics of accumulation by dispossession, the growing global demand for natural resources and energy has led to an unprecedented privatization of biodiversity, natural resources, and communal goods benefiting mega-mining and agribusiness. This implies the appropriation of huge extraordinary profits in the form of ground rent (unproduced surplus value) that translates into greater ecosystem depredation, pollution, famine, and disease with severe environmental implications, including global warming and worsening extreme climatic events that jeopardize the symbiosis between human society and nature.

The predominance and metamorphosis of monopoly capital under the neoliberal aegis has brought about far-reaching transformations in the organization of production and the labor process. These transformations are integral to the global capitalist system’s geography, leading to a fall of the welfare state, an increase in social inequalities, and the emergence of a new international division of labor, where the labor force becomes the main export commodity. This, in turn, gives way to new and extreme forms of unequal exchange and transfer of surplus from the periphery to the core economies of the system. In this context, the irruption of the technoscience revolution has generated new ways of promoting scientific and technological creativity, of organizing the general intellect on a global scale and of appropriating its products.

(Monthly Review, March 2021)

The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.